Every teaching I come across these days seems to point to Awareness as the primary realization of spiritual practice — the unborn, aware, awake, “that which knows”. All beings have this aware quality. It precedes any sensation, any phenomenal activity. It’s supremely simple and closer, even, than our thoughts or our bodies.
“Rest in Natural Great Peace”, says Howie Cohn all the time, quoting Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. That natural great peace is the ‘knowing’ that lies beneath the thinking mind. Even thoughts are known. Thoughts are ripples in the stillness of awareness. Everything is, in a sense, ripples in that still awareness.
When the mind has a chance to settle down, there is an opportunity to rest in that still awareness. If the body and mind are restless, sleepy, angry, wanting, or doubting (experiencing the hinderances), then it’s not easy — perhaps not possible — to catch a glimpse of this stillness. As the mind settles, there is a greater and greater opportunity to discover, and even rest, in that stillness. With stillness of mind, one’s object of meditation, for instance the breath, becomes very tranquil but also very easy to stay with. Like a ripple in a still lake, it’s so easy to spot, so easy to rest one’s attention on. There’s not a lot of distraction around the breath to compete with it. It’s peaceful. It’s calming. The attention is collected, secluded. Desires to be doing anything else fall away. There’s sukkkha, or joy arising from concentration.
Finding the stillness of awareness can be a great aide to breathing practice in this way.
There is still more to explore, though. Becoming stabilized in awareness-in-itself is also possible. After discussing one pointedness, Phillip Moffett invited those at the concentration retreat to become aware of ‘knowing’… of ‘knowing knowing’ and finally ‘knowing knowing knowing’, where the awareness is turned back on itself and uses itself as it’s own object. I recall Alan Watts sort of denying the possibility of this with his “teeth cannot bite themselves” argument, but Phillip invited us to do just this and it was a unique and powerful experience. There have been echoes of it since the retreat and I see so many teachings pointing to it now. It takes practice to put yourself in a position to experience a calm abiding in only knowing, but Phillip pointed to it as a vast and interesting landscape. I think I only made it through to the lobby.. but I have faith that there’s much more to come.